Peter Lennie, Executive Director of the Worldwide Universities Network, spoke about the vital role of academic networks in addressing global challenges at a high-level meeting convened by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network(SDSN) on 9 and 10 July, 2020.
The virtual meeting included a message from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, and an address from the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. DSG Mohammed emphasised the importance of the expertise, innovation, and values of the university sector to progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): ‘As the home of so many of the world’s brightest and best; as the space that shapes future leaders, global citizens and the global workforce; and as the source of many of humanity’s great breakthroughs, we need you to join the sustainable development revolution.’
Lennie’s presentation (consult the full transcript here) explained why collaboration between universities is essential to success: ‘Little that’s embodied in the SDGs depends on developing fundamental new knowledge in the physical or biological sciences. The challenges in reaching the goals are centrally about changing behaviour, and in many instances changing it in a coordinated way everywhere around the world.’
In this context, global networks like the WUN have an especially important role to play in research. By capitalising on its geographical and cultural diversity, Lennie argued, a network readily throws into relief contrasting approaches to research problems and encourages new thinking about how to solve them. He also outlined some of the opportunities for universities despite the impact of COVID-19, noting in particular the chance universities have to reinvigorate their contributions to evidence-based public debate and policy.
Lennie also saw a major opening for collaborations in education: ‘multilateral partnerships of the kind represented by networks are going to be important in developing and delivering the new curriculum we need’ for engaged global citizens. Discussions at the meeting reinforced the need to support student mobility and aspiration, which WUN has been working to develop a ‘virtual study abroad’ scheme for undergraduates for launch later in the year.
The meeting brought together more than 200 participants from over 65 countries, including university presidents, chancellors, and vice-chancellors as well as senior UN officials. The Rockefeller Foundation and Columbia University co-hosted the meeting with the SDSN, a global initiative of the UN to promote implementation of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
In 2020 WUN broke new ground in becoming a network member of SDSN, building on earlier collaborations. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, President of the SDSN, was a guest speaker at WUN’s 2017 Annual General Meeting in New York. The same AGM endorsed a strategic plan to align research programs in WUN’s four global challenges with the implementation of the SDGs.
This year WUN adopted a new strategic plan that focuses its mission on sustainable development in areas where WUN can make a decisive contribution. 2020 also marks the beginning of a UN Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.